On the west side of Chicago, five nervous college freshmen scurried through brisk dusk air.
On the train, our anxiety had been rising as we ticked off the stops that preceded ours. The further west we traveled, the more daylight we lost. We had heard many stories about the Austin neighborhood—not least of which was its record-setting murder rate.
Scanning for street signs, we quickly jogged down the stairs from the el train platform and began the half mile walk to our destination.
A few blocks down, a man who had been sitting on a bench grabbed Andi’s arm.
We all froze.
“Now where’s a pretty girl like you going in a place like this? You look like you’re in an awful hurry.” He said, his face too close to hers.
“We’re going to the church. We’re running late.” She said with a shaky but confident voice.
“I figured, you looked like that type.”
He released her arm and we all began to move quickly away.
“You guys really should be careful,” he added as warning that sounded more like a threat.
That was our first week in Chicago.
Several months later, Andi and I had become friends. A group of us were out on a Saturday afternoon. This time, we were in a completely different part of the city—the nice part. The part where tourists go to shop and locals go to work.
We were talking and laughing as we made our way back to campus. Suddenly, the mood of the group changed, but I couldn’t tell why. One by one, the laughter stopped. I glanced back and saw tears running down Andi’s cheeks.
“Why is it always me? It’s like they know I’m a target. This stuff happens to me all the time.”
A man who was passing by had grabbed her backside.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned Andi’s story.
Her experiences on the street echoed her nightmare childhood: years-long sexual assault by a close family member.
Her parents sided with him.
Her pastor kept it quiet, as long as he promised to stop.
Andi’s experiences spanned the spectrum from sexual harassment to the most extreme form of sexual assault.
Thanks to the Harvey Weinstein allegations and subsequent Me Too viral social media campaign, we are having a much-needed conversation about sexual harassment and assault in our country.
For the first time, many people like Andi are finally able to crack the door open and allow a sliver of light to fall on the heavy pain they’ve been walking with.
For some, typing “Me Too” is a courageous act of defiance against their abusers—an act of rebellion against the shame-filled gag that the Enemy has kept tight around their mouths.
My prayer is that we have a serious conversation in our churches about how we can support and build up women who have experienced these hardships. And how the church can fight against a culture that says that women are to be used, abused and discarded.
But here, my goal is to have a much smaller, personal conversation. Not a conversation that focuses on the church or societal level, but rather the individual; the teen—guy or girl—in your youth group who picked up their phone and wrote “Me Too.”
I want to suggest 3 guidelines for engaging these teens.
Engage with Trust
For whatever reason, many of us approach the topic of sexual assault and harassment from a skeptic’s point of view.
I’ll be completely vulnerable: Even as someone who has worked with many girls who have experienced these issues, I can find myself wondering if a girl is being completely honest. Or if her memory is really accurate. Or if she’s just being dramatic. Or if she’s being malicious.
This attitude of skepticism is one of the reasons that many girls don’t talk about their experiences—as soon as they do, they’re put on trial.
I have no explanation—or excuse—for this, except that we need to check ourselves. We have to choose to approach these girls from a place of empathy and belief.
When someone makes the choice to open up about a difficult experience, we are standing on holy ground. We are in a moment where darkness is going to come to light.
We only get one chance to respond well—we can’t waste it.
As you engage, don’t pry for details but ask questions that help them feel heard. Communicate love, grace and patience.
And as you listen, withhold judgment for everyone involved, but affirm that the thing that was done against them was awful and evil.
Say things like:
I’m so sorry that happened to you. Nobody should have to go through that.
There is no justification for what he did to you—you have every right to be upset.
Affirm their experience, but stop short of attacking their abusers personally. Even though we want to be an advocate for them, we still have to remain objective and outside the situation. And we are still bearers of God’s love and grace—even to womanizers and rapists.
NOTE: Have your state’s mandated reporting guidelines in the back of your mind. Depending on the nature of the harassment/assault, you may need to engage the police or Child Protective Services. If you do this, it shouldn’t be a surprise to the teen—they should be aware that you’re a mandated reporter before they choose to share with you.
The power of the Me Too movement lies in its ambiguity. People have the ability to share their experience without sharing any of the details. That means some Me Toos will reflect a rude comment on the street, while others will reflect extreme sexual assault.
As you’re listening to teens, try to remember that each experience is valid, whether it seems like a big deal to you or not.
Remember, not everyone responds to experiences the same way. That’s why we need to dig into how their experiences have affected them emotionally. Understanding their emotional response enables us to get a clearer picture of the situation and the damage it caused.
Ask things like:
When that happened, what were you feeling? What are you feeling about it now?
Did you have any emotions that surprised you? Why do you think you felt that?
Respond to these feelings with affirmation. They may not have been the same things you would have felt, but that doesn’t mean that their feelings are wrong. Accept their feelings for what they are: an emotional response, neither good nor bad.
How we feel about a situation tends to reflect our beliefs about ourselves, others and God.
For example, if a girl feels guilty after an assault, she likely incorrectly believes that she was at fault. Or if she feels depressed, the situation may have caused her to believe that she is worthless.
Often, as these experiences happen to young women, if affects their beliefs about their identity. How someone treats them becomes the measure of who they are.
If they were treated like they were disposable, they might believe that they don’t have worth.
If people only responded to them in a sexual manner, they might believe the only power they have lies in their sexuality.
You can ask things like:
How do you think that experience affected the way you see yourself?
Did that experience affect your relationship with God? In what ways?
Much of the damage from hurtful experiences happen on the belief level. And consequently, much work of healing happens here too.
Be patient and listen to the Holy Spirit. If we expect a teen to exchange false beliefs for truth overnight, we will likely cause more harm than good. This will be a very long process of reminding them of the truth, helping them renew their mind.
As we do the hard work to help students heal from the damage caused by others, let’s also work to change the cultural norms that led to the damage in the first place.
Let’s be ambassadors of God’s transforming love to the abused and the abusers, bringing light to the darkest of circumstances.
Ash SanFilippo has done youth ministry from the streets of Chicago to a small church on a secluded island, to the suburbs of Minneapolis. He currently works for TreeHouse, leading a team that creates online training content aimed at helping people minister to at-risk teens. Ash lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 1-year-old son. Check out TreeHouse at TREEHOUSEYOUTH.ORG.